Monday, December 19, 2011

Links for December 19, 2011

Articles that I have been reading today:

An excellent article on denialism in general.

An article on how corruption is a part of human nature.

This gentleman is delighted that Kim Jong Il is no more.

And this tells you why the aforementioned man is delighted.

An interesting perspective on the Vedas.

Good to see eccentric inventors in India.

The tea party is popular no more. Looks like George Sr. will have to change to coffee with his dolls in the attic.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

And Ode To Data

As an engineer who has hung around lots of test sections over the last few years, I have developed a mortal fear of a four letter word: Data.

Data is nature's way of keeping your ego in check; data is nature's way of proving that your understanding of the universe (or that miniscule fraction of the universe that you are studying) is entirely incorrect (or at least, needs some level of tweaking).

Data is the world's best physics teacher. The curious engineer relishes fitting physical models to incomprehensible data patterns. The high of fitting a model and making measurable predictions is one of the great highs of life. It is often worth the corresponding low when one realizes that there's a caveat to the model that we just developed.

My attitude towards data has evolved since I joined Intel about a year ago. In graduate school my life was  centered around data. The emphasis back then was to fit an intellectually elegant physical model to the data - so as to make the results general. I believe there is a physicist within every engineer. It is this inner physicist within every engineer that likes to fit a physical model to the data. A shot at redemption for engineer who is, at some level ashamed of becoming a sell-out.\

Having made the switch from academia to the dark side (the corporate world), I am guilty of selling out all the more. While my loyalties do still lie with data (and at Intel, data is the undisputed king), the way of looking at data is completely different.It is less passionate; it is more dreary and mundane. Heartless sounding statistical methods are applied to the data to cull out main effects and interactions.

Which is not to say that physics is entirely forgotten. Physics is more like a philosophy here; it is what informs one's intuition. All the model fitting that is done here is done in one's head. 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

It's not rocket science

One of my pet peeves these days is the phrase "It's not rocket science". Because rocket science is not complicated. You take chemicals that produce a large amount of gas on chemically reacting; you duct the gas out in one direction -- and you immediately move in the opposite reaction.  It's so simple that even ancient peoples had working rockets -- before they even knew what a technical paper was. I hereby take a vow: I will NOT use the phrase "It's not rocket science" ever again. Because that's an insult to my intelligence.

Let's think of something more apt. Manned flight? Meh. An undergrad who's been paying attention in fluid mechanics class can draw a couple of control volumes and prove the Kutta-Jukowski theorem. If an undergrad can explain something, I refuse to use that to signify a complicated situation.

Before I learnt how microprocessors worked, it was all greek to me. But now, I see how circuits of transistors trading in 0s and 1s essentially run the internet. While all this is remarkably complicated, it is not a philosophically closed book. I can wrap my head around it. But this is significantly more complex than rocket science.

I've a;ways found understanding avian flight to be a much more difficult prospect. It's considerably more complex than how an airplane generates thrust and lift -- but it's not impossible to explain. As a matter of fact, this site does a good job of it. If you say "It's not bird flight", you will earn a little more of my respect than you would have, had you gone with "It's not rocket science".

But one thing that does scream complexity to me is theoretical physics. I've sort of sold-out by getting a PhD in engineering ('cause that's where the monies are), so there's almost no chance that I can make head or tail of how a neutrino traveling faster than light can allow for time travel. My understanding of the world starts and stops with classical mechanics (like most engineers). What would intimidate me is the math and physics of string theory. Hell, even quantum theory.

Long story short -- if you say "It's not rocket science", I will either lose all respect for your intellectual faculties, or interpret it as "it's not as simple as rocket science". For a particular task to gain my respect you probably will have to claim that it's not bird-flight --- or, what the hell, the theory of faster-than light neutrinos.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On Tablets

It's been more than a year since I became a part of the Apple bandwagon. I purchased myself an iPAD about 16 months ago. I was sufficiently impressed by the same to subsequently purchase an iPhone. Looking back, this is probably because of Apple's reality distortion field.

And the wife was  impressed enough to purchase the most recent iThing with Siri. 

I can now confirm that the the iPad is pretty useless. You can't read an article on it when it's dark as the iPad is too bright. You can't read an article on it when it's bright because the light will reflect off the glossy surface. When you finally locate yourself at a convenient angle, you will find that the screen orientation will automatically flip to horizontal when you're prepared to read it vertically. 

And then there's the fiasco of trying to navigate a large multi-page article on the iPAD. It is almost taken for granted that you will click some silly link inadvertently while trying to resize an article. Some of the more sadistic webpage designers like to split a story into 20 pages with links to pages 1 through 20 at the bottom of the page. Each and every one of those numbers is hyperlinked,  (like such: 1 2 3 ... 20). Clicking these numbers is about the most difficult thing one can consider doing with one's iPad.  I inevitably click everything else on the page (including advertisements) while attempting to click these numbers.  I am convinced that my arbitrary clicking on an iPad article is to some extent responsible for the success of the ad-revenue model of some of the websites I visit.

Have you ever tried to type on the damned thing? The keyboard is evil, most likely a descendant of Josef Stalin. Yes, I get it -- the touchscreen is a wonder of the modern world, yes, yes. But what big Steve has done is that he's taken something simple and functional (the humble keyboard) and turned it into something beautiful and utterly useless.  As someone who types a fair amount, I can think of several things that are more pleasurable than typing on an iPad. Like getting waterboarded.

Sometimes, I like to mask my frustration by thinking of  the iPad as a mere piece of glass. When I watch people type on it (or shooting birds at stones on it), I imagine the screen to be blank. This immediately converts my frustration into mirth, as anyone would look ridiculous beating a piece of glass without any gratification. I usually collapse in laughter watching people do stupid things to glass.

Tablets are first world toys. They're useless for creating content (you can't really type on the damn things). You can't really consume content on them (give me my 37" TV anyday over the piece-of-crap IPAD). 

Maybe the experience with M$' Windows 8 will be different? Skeptical I remain.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Proposition: An atheist Chruch

We like spending time with like-minded people. Christians spend Sunday in the church; singles spend friday nights in bars attempting to simulate perpetuating their genes; Hindus spend time injuring the soles of their feet in the temple; Muslim (men) attend the mosque; stoned slackers attend tapings of the Daily Show in NYC. But where does the friendly neighborhood atheist go? Nowhere. He/ she sits at home browsing reddit. Reddit is a site where people post pictures of themselves and their pets doing stupid things. The goal is to be a little less pathetic.

I hereby decree that there be established something physical called the Church of the flying spaghetti monster. Its philosophy is well articulated here . Its subsidiary in China would be called the Party headquarters of the airborne soy-soaked noodle; the Indian affiliate would be the temple of the traveling Pav bhaji. But I digress.

This church will convene every Sunday morning, just like Christian churches do. It will have a service where congregants watch youtube videos of Salman Khan (the educator, not the actor, ). After exhausting all those videos, the congregation will move on to watching Leo Susskind's talks at Stanford on Quantum mechanics. The video will be rewatched until the congregation acquires a philosophical understanding of quantum mechanics. It is therefore moot to decide upon what to watch next.

The church will be organized at some dude's basement, using his 50" (125.7cm) television for all Khan-watching purposes. In areas where basements are uncommon, the sessions will be either organized on the roof, in the garden or in the garage. The host will assume all responsibility of transporting the 1257mm (we like to keep it metric here) to the place in consideration. Living rooms will be avoided since it is assumed that the inevitable xbox 360 will provide a diversion from Khan watching.

The head church will be established in one of the poorer parts of Vatican city, primarily to troll organized religion. (There were three options -- Vatican city, Mecca or Benares. Mecaa lost out because it would be illegal under prevailing Saudi Law. Benares is a no-go, because I personally am averse to filth; the goal is to troll, not to commit suicide. Which leaves only the Vatican.

If we were to limit these atheist Churches to cities with an atheist population exceeding 1,000 that would essentially eliminate most cities in the US, India and the middle east. (The latter because the would all have been stoned to death if and when they did come out, the former because they would have been bullied to dead for being a lie-bur-ull, and India because some everyone loves their neighborhood crackpot.) For Instance, I have it from an unimpeachable source that I was the only atheist in Chennai when I stayed there.I'm fairly sure that I am the only atheist in Phoenix at this point in time. I was the only atheist in Bahrain when I stopped over there to change flights in the airport.

Sounds complicated. Perhaps it is now time to watch a fox eat a cracker instead.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lokpal Blues

Now that the Lokpal Bill pretty much has been passed, I'm trying to figure out whether I should continue being skeptical of this, or if I should look at the silver lining.

My issues with the bill still persist--

The bill has been drafted unilaterally by a small, unrepresentative panel. That this bill (drafted by common citizens) gained so much eminence is certainly a gross perversion of democracy - what makes Anna Hazare et al. so special to get their bill considered ahead of other citizens? - but let us overlook that for now, as this is not germane to the issue.

The bill has been "passed" by the parliament under duress, under significant emotional manipulation ("Pass it or I starve to death!"). This is also a gross perversion of democracy. But let us overlook this for now as well, as this is also not entirely germane to the issue. (Let me also add that I am proud of the discipline shown by the crowds - there were scant untoward events during the massive gatherings - which is very surprising for a crowd in India.)

The people in charge of the movement certainly do not inspire confidence. Anna Hazare has several Talibanistic tendencies -- he is known to have gotten some "drunkards" flogged in public for drinking in is village. He is known for his association with regressive hindu fundamentalists such as Baba Ramdev, whose views on everything have more in common with Ug the caveman than the average Indian. Just talk to him about homosexuality if you want to get a snapshot of his views.

These three factors made me oppose the bill on principle - and I've been fairly shrill about this. But now that the bill has pretty much passed in the parliament all my whining will be of little consequence. So, let us nitpick the actual bill:

The motivation for this bill is absolutely indisputable. Corruption is crippling the bottom of the economic pyramid in India. It is also irking the urban middle class which compares Indian politicians with Barack Obama (who seems squeaky clean compared to A Raja and Laloo Yadhav) and feels humiliated.

But are the actual provisions smart? Do I think that they will curb corruption? Let me copy the summary of the bill from wikipedia and comment upon it [, my comments are italicized and under-lined in square braces [] ] :

Some important features of the proposed bill are:[11]

  1. To establish a central government anti-corruption institution called Lokpal, supported by Lokayukta at the state level. [No issues with this]
  2. As in the case of the Supreme Court and Cabinet Secretariat, the Lokpal will be supervised by the Cabinet Secretary and the Election Commission. As a result, it will be completely independent of the government and free from ministerial influence in its investigations. [Basically a supercop which is not under the government's control - none of the people who appoint the Lokpal are elected representatives. This means that it will be impossible for the people to vote out an unpopular Lokpal -- this is a massive, existential flaw with the law.]
  3. Members will be appointed by judges, Indian Administrative Service officers with a clean record, private citizens and constitutional authorities through a transparent and participatory process. [ (1) Clean record requirement opens a can of worms, as now there appears and incentive to get people framed (2) Who selects the private citizens who select these Lokpals / Lokayuktas? (3) This whole thing is beginning to look like a scenario from Yes Prime Minister -- like the conversations between Sir Arnold and Sir Appleby and the chairmanship of the commission for the freedom of information]
  4. A selection committee will invite short-listed candidates for interviews, videorecordings of which will thereafter be made public. [I like the videorecordings bit -- but how will it be guaranteed that the the transparency is real and not selective?]
  5. Every month on its website, the Lokayukta will publish a list of cases dealt with, brief details of each, their outcome and any action taken or proposed. It will also publish lists of all cases received by the Lokayukta during the previous month, cases dealt with and those which are pending. [Again, how do we make sure that the facts are not selective? You can frame anyone by doctoring facts. The appearance of transparency is dangerous -- how do you guarantee that the transparency is genuine?]
  6. Investigations of each case must be completed in one year. Any resulting trials should be concluded in the following year, giving a total maximum process time of two years. [Yes. And the moon is made of green cheese. How is this rule going to be implemented in a nation where cases drag on for centuries in the courts?]
  7. Losses caused to the government by a corrupt individual will be recovered at the time of conviction.
  8. Government officework required by a citizen that is not completed within a prescribed time period will result in Lokpal imposing financial penalties on those responsible, which will then be given as compensation to the complainant.
  9. Complaints against any officer of Lokpal will be investigated and completed within a month and, if found to be substantive, will result in the officer being dismissed within two months. [See comment 6]
  10. The existing anti-corruption agencies (CVC, departmental vigilance and the anti-corruption branch of the CBI) will be merged into Lokpal which will have complete power and authority to independently investigate and prosecute any officer, judge or politician. [Don't care about this.]
  11. Whistleblowers who alert the agency to potential corruption cases will also be provided with protection by it.

Bottomline: The bill creates a new non-democratically selected power center. This is a step backwards for democracy. The head lokpal has so many powers that he could very well plot a coup against a government the Lokpal declares "corrupt" .

Futhermore, there is no fool-proof mechanism to keep this person honest (though it is quite clear that the drafters of the Jan-Lokpal bill did try to account for this issue --- but I don't think it is anywhere near foolproof as they would like).

While this law does address some issues (like the political neutrality of the supercop), it raises several more serious questions. The silver lining is being obscured by other clouds :(

Monday, April 25, 2011

Another Holy Cow

I speak of none other than Sathya Sai Baba, Satyanarayana Raju (or Raju, as I will call him henceforth in this post, because all men are equal.).

This is a sensitive topic, lots of people I know have a lot of respect for this gentleman.

However, I would like to link to his wikipedia article here.

And I would like to point out certain aspects within the article.

This particular section has him resembling Peter Parker.

On 8 March 1940, while living with his elder brother Seshama Raju in Uravakonda, Sathya was apparently stung by a scorpion.[27][28] He lost consciousness for several hours.[26] Within the next few days there was a noticeable change in Sathya's behavior.[28] There were "symptoms of laughing and weeping, eloquence and silence."[28][29] "He began to sing Sanskrit verses, a language of which he had no prior knowledge."[6] Doctors believed his behavior to be hysteria.[6][28] His parents brought Sathya home to Puttaparthi.[30] Concerned, they took him to many priests, "doctors" and exorcists.[28][29]

On 23 May 1940, Sathya called household members and reputedly materialised prasad and flowers for his family members.[31] His father became furious at seeing this, thinking his son was bewitched. He took a stick and asked him who he was. To this Sathya announced calmly and firmly "I am Sai Baba", a reference to Sai Baba of Shirdi.[6][26] He proclaimed himself to be a reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi—a saint who became famous in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Maharashtra and had died eight years before Sathya was born.[6][30][32]


Devotees say they have observed Sathya Sai Baba manifesting vibuti (holy ash), and sometimes food and "small objects" such as rings, necklaces and watches.[103] In some books, magazines, filmed interviews and articles, Sathya Sai Baba's followers report miracles of various kinds that they attribute to him.[104] The first ever record of Baba's miracles by a foreigner was made by Howard Murphet in his book, Sai Baba – Man Of Miracles.[105] Devotees have said that objects have appeared spontaneously in connection with pictures and altars of Sathya Sai Baba.[106][107] Sathya Sai Baba's devotees believe that he relieves his devotees by transferring their pain to himself.[108]

(and the rest of the section "Reputation for Miracles and Clairvoyance").

*sigh again*

And this:

The Vancouver Sun in 2001 reported that Sathya Sai Baba told his adherents not to browse the Internet due to allegations rapidly circulating on various Internet websites and in a few newspapers.[131] In a 2000 public discourse, Sathya Sai Baba said, "These teachings (the Vedas) are highly sacred. Today people are ready to believe all that they see on television and internet but do not repose their faith in the Vedic declarations. Internet is like a waste paper basket. Follow the 'innernet,' not the internet."[132]

I will finally end with this video:


An argument in favor of people like the aforementioned Raju is that he can get stuff done to help the people who need it most.

I still don't think we need to resort to blind faith in something supernatural to do this. I don't mourn his death more than I would mourn anyone else's.

I must also link to a BBC documentary series and an excellent reddit thread discussing these issues.



Monday, April 18, 2011

Who do we trust?

Exhibit (1) -- A take-down of Communist Rule in WB from rupert murdoch's propaganda rag, the wsj.

The post contains this patently illogical statement:

In 1950, the city had a population of over 4.5 million. Bombay’s population stood at 2.6 million and Delhi’s at 1.4 million. Bangalore had just 0.8 million people. By 2007, Bombay’s population was nearly 19 million, Delhi and Bangalore had 16.7 million and 7 million people respectively, while Calcutta’s population was 14.8 million. While other cities have successfully projected themselves as offering economic opportunity and upward social mobility, Calcutta is a shadow of its former self and wouldn’t even be counted among the top four cities in India. It has long been surpassed not just by Bombay and Delhi, but arguably even Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad.

IMHO the author (Rajiv Mantri) needs to rush to a hospital to get his head examined.

Exhibit (2) -- This article in the Financial Times, which seems to want to give the communists the benefit of the doubt.

Certainly both can't be right, unless this is Schrodinger's politics.

Needs some investigation.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Only 2 ways out

I've come to realize that there's only 2 ways the entire crisis of 2008 could have been dealt with.

(1) Let the banks fail and face the depression that the pundits promised would follow.
(2) Big governments saves the banks, averts a depression.

Method (1) would have been the capitalist way out. The free market way out. The fiscally conservative way out. Method (1) would have instilled a fear of misbehavior in the banks and other financial institutions - and thus ensured that the crisis would not have occured again.

However, method (2), the "big government" solution was implemented. The banks were saved by taxpayer guarantees. A depression was averted (say Krugman et al.). Let us pause here and note that the more fiscally conservative politicos decided that capitalism was a no-go. Bush et al. decided that they needed a strong state to "guide" capitalism. They decided that the invisible hand was too harsh a fitness function for the Genetic Algorithm that is the market, especially when one is dealing with banks.

Now that method (2) has been implemented, we must forget about method (1). There is no way we should even consider unfettered capitalism in the short run (with the same companies which benifited from the handout still in existence). The only way out is to regulate the banks to hell. If politicians manage to impose method (1) characteristics on the system what will result is a bastard child of socialism and capitalism -- one where losses are socialized and profits are privatized. There is a bunch of people that believe this has already happened.

So, my understanding is that there is no option but to regulate everything, sit down and shut up and accept all the inefficiencies that come with it. If you want to say "market knows best", then I will remind you that in your worldview, you are dealing with financial institutions which should have died. If you let them get away with no regulation, you should realize that what is happening is not capitalism anymore. Moral Hazard, yada yada yada.

So, in essence, fiscal conservatives should also realize that their philosophy is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. After all, a fiscally conservative president rescued the banks with government money. This should be enough evidence for us to throw these ideas (from Ron Paul et al.) into a bottomless pit.

Friday, March 04, 2011


Was in Portland for a couple of days for a hectic training trip. This was my second trip to the city (the first one having been in November).

I have been told that it is a beautiful city with snow covered peaks in the vicinity (Mount Hood), beautiful evergreen forests and the rugged pacific coast. Unfortunately, there was no way to verify this claim, as the city's skies were saturated with clouds all along. This was the case in November -- and it was also the case now. For all I knew, all the maps and photos could be an elaborate ruse, and that surroundings of the city could be as flat as central Texas.

Did I mention the gloom? I believe most native Portlanders believe that the sun exists only for 3 months a year, and the rest of the year it is replaced by some sort of hazy continuum in the sky. Stands to reason that Copernicus, Galileo and the like did not hail from Oregon. And it rains all the time. It rains so much that there's moss on the asphalt!

My employer (who shall remain unnamed) has several campii in the area -- and each campus hires several thousands people, who commute on the perpetually wet streets of Portland. I found one fairly ironic thing on campus: a covered parking area with solar panels on top. It certainly is the height of optimism to expect to produce any useful amount of electricity from the 270 days of utter gloom that the city encounters. I'd like to meet whoever did the ROI calculations on that.

I could now relate to why Nirvana, Alice in Chains and the like produced such gloomy music -- Seattle essentially has the same weather. There is no way you could expect bubblegum pop to arise from such a setting.

On a concluding note, I look forward to one of my subsequent trips to Portland being in Summer. I have been told that those 3 months (from July to September) begin to resemble paradise. This will be a welcome change from the 50C temperatures in the Valley of the Sun, which spring, summer and fall invariably bring with them.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Silent Sundays

So, this weekend, Radha and I decided to hike up Camelback (again). We decided to do it on Sunday, because, well, we were lazy on Saturday. We took our own sweet time in getting things done, and found ourselves in the Camelback area around 915a.

We had assumed that getting a parking spot would be quite a simple deal -- but it did not work out. There was not a spot in sight -- just a line of cars ahead of us, seeking that non-existent spot.

Since Camelback wasn't going to work out, we though going up Squaw peak (2 weeks in a row) should not be such a bad deal --- it'll get the heart beating fast -- good cardio.

Same problem there. No place to park. For a city with so many things to do, Phoenix does not have enough parking places to keep your car while you do the things that you can do.

So, we made our way to South Mountain. (We were going to get that cardio -- no two ways about it). And as soon as we entered the park, we were informed that it was a silent Sunday, and that no motor vehicle would be permitted within.

We took some bikes on rent near the parking lot and climbed up (all the way to the summit). It took us a good 1 hr 35 min to go up (because we were no physical shape to do so). The bike that they gave us was a thick wheeled mountain bike -- and it did not perform as well as one of the thin wheeled ones. The way up was a struggle, though reaching the top did allow us to wallow (for a little while) in a sense of achievement.

And then the downhill ride was fun.

All this was done without coping with vehicular traffic on the mountain thanks to the city's silent Sunday program. This is what they ought to do on every paved mountain around the world!

Cold in NY, Warm in the Arctic

The surprising variability of climate never ceases to amaze. Clearly, the last line of the article makes sense. Nature is the total perspective vortex!

“Just when you publish something and it looks like you’re seeing a connection,” Dr. Wallace said, “nature has a way of humbling us.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

Uranium in Punjab Water

It started off with Mrinal's post RTI requests (pages 1, 2, 3 and 4 ).

The gist of these reports is that high concentrations of Uranium have been found in bore-well water in areas in Punjab. The uranium in question here is natural uranium and not depleted or enriched uranium, suggesting that a military connotation is unlikely. The study is being conducted by the Guru Nakak Deo University at Amritsar -- and a final report is due in 2 years. The report also states that using reverse osmosis is sufficient to reduce the concentration of U in water.

Concerns regarding consuming food grown in Punjab were raised by Mrinal.

Further investigation lead to the following links from Akhilesh:

Article from Punjab Newsline regarding links between H2O U concentration and mental retardation. Dr. Carin Smit (from RSA) was responsible for the study.

A wikipedia article on the same subject was also unearthed, which contains a good summary of the issues. Along with the summary, several excellent links are also available in the footnotes section, including an NDTV report, a report in the Telegraph and an article in the observer. (Subsequent talkback regarding this article – especially regarding the link between Autism and waterborne Uranium cited by Lingo available here).

From the wikipedia article, it is clear that the likely source of uranium in Punjab was fly-ash from coal-fired power plants. There are 3 coal fired power plants in Punjab, as per this wikipedia article. (a) Ropar (b) Lehra Mohabat (c) Bhatinda

Source map available here. Figures are from the BARC documents referenced above.

The map is mildy suggestive of a correlation of U concentration in water to proximity to Power plants. This correlation was originally investigated by an article in the Observer in 2009.

The technicalities of Uranium pollution due to thermal power generation were then explored. PJ cites a couple of articles

Around 90% naturally occurring uranium could be stopped in the RO membrane. However methods like ion exchange would be more effective. If it is a naturally occuring uranium(?), is probably composed of 99.3% uranium-238, 0.7% uranium-235, and a negligible amount of uranium-234 (by weight), as well as a number of radioactive decay products. The half-life of uranium-238 is about 4.5 billion years, uranium-235 about 700 million years, and uranium-234 about 25 thousand years. 235 and 234 isotopes are much more harmful than the 238 one. US EPA guideline for drinking water is 20-30 µg/l, Australia is 20 µg/L and California Public Health Goal for Uranium in Drinking Water (not a regulatory standard) is 0.5 µg per litre. So the water in Punjab is definitely 6-7 times higher in concentration even by the modest guidelines. This level of uranium is not dangerous for example if one was to be in the water or bath in the water. But it is NO NO for drinking. Because all uranium isotopes are primarily alpha emitters, they are only hazardous if ingested or inhaled, so definitely NO NO for eating the vegetable products in the area as well. Several of the radioactive uranium decay products are gamma emitters, that is why workers in the vicinity of large quantities of uranium in storage or in a processing facility can also be exposed to low levels of external radiation. This could come in picture if there is a dump site. This is a very serious issue and definitely worth taking considering this will affect generations to come (ofcourse it would depend on the extent of contamination in all of Punjab and neighbouring state waters).

PJ Also supplies a link to a SciAm article, which asserts that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. However, the article asserts that both are fairly harmless and does not get worked up about it.

There are several unanswered questions at this point.

(1) Why Punjab? If fly ash is responsible – why not the USA, which gets more than 50% of its energy through coal? Why not other areas in India?

(2) Is food from Punjab (grown, presumably on this high U water) dangerous?

(3) Are we confident that U is responsible for the retardation in children? Is the number of retarded children in Punjab abnormally high?

(4) Are the concentrations of U unequivocally die to coal ash?

An email was sent by Mihir to offer help with this issue to Ms. Smit in RSA.

Dr Smit,

Hope this email finds you well. I am part of a small group that has recently discovered the issue that you have been working on (regarding extremely high levels of exposure to Uranium in children in Punjab's S Malwa region) and have read the paper that you published together with the team from Microtrace.

Quick introduction to who we are: We are a community of Indians - living both in India and abroad - who have graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras sometime between the last 5-8 years. Our group focuses on policy discussions, but we also want to help out with targeted issues such as this.

First, we wanted to thank you for all the work you have done to analyze and publicize this issue. I am sure it must have been an uphill struggle, and I cannot imagine what it took. For all of this, thank you.

Second, we wanted to ask you how best we could help. Here are a few avenues we are toying with, but we would be interested in your thoughts:

It seems to us that our effort may need two clear goals:

1. Identify and mitigate the root causes of the uranium exposure as quickly as possible

2. Evaluate how widespread the effects of this problem are (eg. Most of India's food comes from the Punjab - is there a possibility of the metal seeping into groundwater that is subsequently used for agriculture?)

There are potentially a few ways of doing this (all thought starters at this point):

a. Get the company I work for (I am an Engagement Manager at a consulting firm called McKinsey) to do a pro-bono study on this issue through their social sector office with a group of volunteers from within the company and try to unearth key causes.

b. Organize fundraisers to highlight this issue and fund academic studies that help us get to the root cause/ mitigate it

c. Reach out to contacts we have in the media in India to ensure that we raise the profile of this problem

d. We may need to do all of these to get anywhere

For now, we would be quite interested in 2 things:

1. Understanding if you are still actively working on this issue, or is there another person you can point us to that may be a better point of contact.

2. If you are active on this topic, we would love to set up a conference call with you and speak to you on what the right approach/ setup might be to make a difference to the children of Faridkot.

Apologies for this long email, and please let us know what we could do to make a difference. Thanks so much!

Mihir Mysore

I'm disabling comments on this post -- let's keep the discussion on FB.